WASHINGTON — This is nothing new for the Washington Nationals: enjoy the euphoria of an NL East title, then the disappointment of a Division Series exit — usually with a narrow Game 5 loss, usually at home.
So once again, this time by virtue of a wild 9-8 defeat in the deciding game against the visiting Chicago Cubs, the Nationals head into the off-season knowing they’ve still never won a playoff series. As always, there are important questions to ask and answer, the biggest being whether manager Dusty Baker will be back.
"That decision is made from up top," 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper said when asked about Baker in the wee hours of Friday. "I don’t want to comment on that, really."
Harper himself only is under Washington’s control for one more year and can become a free agent after the 2018 season, which will undoubtedly be a major topic of serious conversation and speculation from now until either the Nationals sign him or he heads to the open market.
But more likely to get resolved, one way or the other, in the near term is Baker’s situation. His contract expires at the conclusion of this season, his second in Washington and 22nd as a skipper in the big leagues.
Dating to spring training, he has made clear his desire for a new deal, but the Nationals refused to negotiate at all until season’s end.
"We’re both confident that he’ll be back with us," general manager Mike Rizzo said before the NLDS against the Cubs began, "but we haven’t had any conversations about it."
Baker’s teams in Washington have won two division titles — they were 97-65 in 2017, finishing 20 games out in front — and finished with two one-run Game 5 setbacks at Nationals Park.
"It really hurts," Baker said, "to lose like that."
There are pressing matters other than his future, of course.
For one, the not-so-small matter of how to go from being such a consistently good regular-season team to one that finally manages to get over the hurdle of collecting a single post-season series victory.
"Any time you get to the end of a series like this and you don’t win it," second baseman Daniel Murphy said, "it feels like a missed opportunity."
Here are other things to know as the Nationals head into the offseason:
Can’t be easy being a sports fan in the nation’s capital. Over and over, when the local teams in the four major professional sports leagues get to the playoffs, their runs are brief: None has reached a league semifinal stage in 19 years, a combined drought of 69 seasons (remember, there was a three-decade-plus gap without baseball in Washington until the Expos moved from Montreal in 2005). The Capitals were the most recent club to get that far, losing in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. The Wizards were last in the Eastern Conference finals in the 1978-79 season. The Redskins haven’t been to the NFC title game since the 1991 season.
Every Nationals playoff appearance has come since outfielder Jayson Werth arrived from the Philadelphia Phillies on a stunning-at-the-time $126 million, seven-year contract. That’s up now, and the expectation is that the 38-year-old Werth has played his last game for Washington. He hit .226 this season, then .167 in the NLDS, and whiffed on an attempted catch in left field in Game 5, leading to a run for the Cubs. "To think that it’s over right now is tough to swallow," Werth said. "I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here, obviously. This place has come a long way in seven years. No regrets. We gave it all we had. I know I gave everything I had, left it all out there. I’m proud to call myself a National. Before I came here, I don’t know if anybody would’ve said that."
SCHERZER AND STRASBURG
Moving forward, the brightest spot for the Nationals is their 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation: Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, who might both finish in the top three of NL Cy Young Award voting. Scherzer’s one-inning disaster of a relief appearance in Game 5 notwithstanding, he is one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball and is under contract for four more years. Strasburg’s 12-strikeout masterpiece in Game 4 — after the unmitigated PR disaster that preceded it — completely altered his reputation and backed up a tremendous season. Now the Nationals have him under contract for another half-dozen years.